'Rescue' or 'theft?' - BLM's intended swoop divides horse world

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CRESCENT VALLEY, Newe Sogobia - Bureau of Land Management plans to confiscate Western Shoshone horse herds include the largest, and most controversial, "horse rescue" ever attempted by private groups.

Federal and Nevada state officials have called on a national network of "horse rescue" groups to process the nearly 1,000 horses they are planning to seize from ranchers Carrie and Mary Dann, possibly as early as Jan. 18. The Dann sisters, traditional Western Shoshone elders in their late 70s and early 80s, have refused to pay federal grazing fees for nearly three decades for the use of land they maintain still belongs to the Western Shoshone people.

In response supporters of the Dann sisters are starting their own round up of the Crescent Valley horses to move them "to an undisclosed preserve for safekeeping," the Western Shoshone National Council announced at press time. Hundreds of the horses will be donated to other Indian nations for horse management and gentling programs, said the announcement. The National Council said the BLM and Nevada Department of Agriculture had been informed of the move and were not expected to interfere. BLM Elko District supervisor Helen Hankins informed the Danns that her agency would not attempt to seize the horses at least through the end of the week of Jan. 20, the release said.

The federal government's choice of lead rescue group Habitat for Horses maintains that its role is "to take care of the horses, not interfere with the dispute over land." But a growing number of disenchanted members of the rescue coalition now say that the BLM "gather" is so ill conceived that it will place a large number of the horses in jeopardy.

JoLynn Worley, spokeswoman for the Reno, Nev. BLM office, said the round up was planned in coordination with the State of Nevada Brand Inspector, but she declined to give a definite date. "We plan to do this round up before the end of February," she said, "before the foaling season starts."

Worley refused to confirm that the round up was planned for the weekend of Jan. 18, citing safety concerns. She said that if a large number of outsiders were present during the rush of half-wild animals, someone could get hurt.

Dan DuBray, a spokesman for the Department of Interior in Washington, D.C., said that he was not familiar with the pending BLM action. He indicated that the operation would not be affected by the discovery, reported in the Jan. 15 Indian Country Today, that a serious procedural flaw might destroy the government's assertion that it had taken title to Western Shoshone land. Repeating the prevalent government opinion, DuBray said the Western Shoshone case "was adjudicated already before the Supreme Court."

In the meantime, vigorous debate is going on over the details of the BLM's planned "gather" of the Danns' horses.

"This is the most ludicrous, ridiculous thing I have ever heard of," said Becky Lloyd of Rainbow Farm in southwest Missouri. Lloyd, at first part of the national rescue network, told ICT that something about the effort didn't add up. As she looked into it further, learning for the first time about the Dann sisters' case, she became vehemently opposed to the rescue effort and began an e-mail and telephone campaign against it.

"This is a monumental undertaking," she said about the "rescue" plan. "It's never been done before on this scale."

Lloyd said the horse round up came at the worst time of year for the health and safety of the horses. In its haste to confiscate the Danns' herd, she said, the BLM will be driving pregnant mares over icy mountain terrain, harassing them with a helicopter. Once gathered, the horses will have to be fed at a time when feed prices are their highest. Most or all of the pregnant mares will be foaling in the spring and will be in danger of miscarrying.

"Even the BLM doesn't round up mustangs at this time of year," she said.

(Worley said, however, that the BLM had conducted mustang round ups in December and January. She denied that the horses faced undue risk. "The contractor we have is very good at his job," she said.)

Lloyd said the problems would continue even after the traumatized horses were parceled out to the "rescue" groups. She said that, according to the rules of the operation, the volunteers from as far away as New York, West Virginia and Missouri would be required to take stallions, yearlings and mares with foal in equal numbers. In some cases, this unruly mix of half-wild animals would face a ride of up to 20 hours in the same horse trailer.

"This is something that would happen with puppy mills," Lloyd said. "You would see this with dogs, not horses."

The coordinator of the effort, Jerry Finch of Habitat for Horses in Hitchcock, Texas, was not available for comment. But in a press release, he said that the Nevada Department of Agriculture had "solicited his help in placing these horses." The state, he said, required all applications and adoption fees by Jan. 17.

"While the state of Nevada, the federal agency, and the tribe fight out jurisdiction, almost 1,000 horses are in jeopardy of being sold at auction. These animals with little or no training, no pedigree or registration would be sold at market prices - meaning more than likely they will be sold as meat.

"The coalition of horse rescues and organizations is coming together to help save as many of the Nevada horses as possible, given the short time frame."

Finch said that because of the unprecedented size of the rescue, he had asked Jennifer Williams of Lone Star Equine Rescue in College Station, Texas, to help coordinate.

Although the adoption effort skirts the point that many of the horses actually belong to the Dann sisters, some of the e-mail traffic has begun to raise the issue. In one posting, reprinted by the Western Shoshone Defense Project, rescuer Jo Belasco asked, "How can people simply turn a blind eye to the Dann sisters and to what is going on?

"So why are we rushing all of this? Why are we simply sitting back and allowing the BLM to run things this way. Why are we allowing this to happen in what may be very dangerous conditions to the horses?"

The BLM's Worley responded, as she has innumerable times before, "The trespassing situation has been going on with the Danns for about 30 years."

She said that the BLM expressed concern last summer about "the excessive number of horses in Crescent Valley" and had negotiated with the Danns to reduce their herd. Julie Ann Fishel of the Western Shoshone Defense Council said that the Danns were willing to reduce the herd, but that another BLM roundup of their cattle on a different part of the range in September had forced them to fill up their holding pens with the cattle they had gathered in advance of the federal agents.

Worley said that in the early 1990s the Danns were running 2,000 horses in the Crescent Valley and had gathered and sold about 1,700. By comparison, she said, "when the Danns held a valid grazing permit, it was for 170 cattle and 10 horses.

"Eight hundred to 1,000 horses is an impact," she said.

Worley said that the broader issue of rightful ownership of the land had already been adjudicated, repeating the common assumption of the federal government. "The federal courts told us we have a job to do.

"The BLM didn't take the land away from the Western Shoshone. We can't give the land back to them. All we can do is to manage public land."